WILHELMSHAVEN, Germany – In March, the German government asked energy companies to weigh a seemingly impossible engineering task. Could a new liquefied natural gas import terminal, which normally takes at least five years to build, be built in this port city by the end of the year?
At the headquarters of the company that was asked to build the pipeline section, technical director Thomas Hüwener posed this question to his team. “If no, it’s a no,” he told them. “If so, then we have to commit, with all the possible consequences for our business.”
After three days of deliberation, the company concluded that if everything went perfectly, the project could be finished before Christmas. Since then, it has had to contend with potentially toxic land and environmental regulations protecting frogs and bats. When workers encountered high groundwater, they had to drain trenches and then backfill them.
Another company building a jetty for the floating terminal had to scan the seabed for unexploded ordnance from World War II and scour construction sites across Europe for supplies.
“This project is really a race against time,” said pipeline project manager Franz-Josef Kissing. “It’s a battle.”
Cut off from most things russian natural gas, large parts of Europe are rushing to set up alternative energy sources and build the necessary infrastructure for them. If the continent fails to strengthen its energy grid, governments may have to resort to fuel rationing this winter, possibly leading to factory shutdowns and more pain for manufacturers. Next winter could be even harsher if the gas storage facilities are not replenished. The EU has estimated that ending its reliance on Russian fossil fuels would add at least 300 billion euros, or about $315 billion, in infrastructure costs by 2030.
Since Russia stopped most natural gas exports to Europe in the fall, gas flows from Russia to Germany have dropped from 55% of imports last year to zero. The three German liquefied natural gas terminals scheduled for completion this year can cover at least 15% of the country’s gas needs. Berlin plans to install more terminals next year and is working on more permanent installations. It has budgeted more than 6.5 billion euros for such terminals by 2022.
Dozens of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, facilities are planned for construction across the EU in the coming years, allowing Europe to buy more gas from nations such as Qatar and the US
Within days of taking on the job of building a 19-mile pipeline between the new Wilhelmshaven terminal and the natural gas grid, Mr. Kissing’s employer, pipeline builder Open Grid Europe GmbH, a team of specialists in everything from route planning and nature conservation to archeology and law.
Cooling natural gas to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit turns it into a liquid that can be shipped in ocean-going tankers to terminals where it can be turned back into gas. A floating LNG terminal is a gas facility on a huge specialized tanker that receives liquefied gas from another tanker and returns it to a gaseous state.
The jetty, which will be home to the floating Wilhelmshaven terminal, is a particularly complicated project because it must withstand the force of two large, gas-filled ships pressing against it. For Niedersachsen Ports GmbH & Co. KG, which is building the jetty, the first challenge was to find materials – quickly. Ordering them from a factory would have taken months. Mathias Lüdicke, the company’s branch manager in Wilhelmshaven, said the company had to scour Europe for construction materials, including the steel piles that would be driven into the seabed.
Niedersachsen Havne called suppliers in France, the Netherlands, Finland and the Baltics. It found 165-foot steel piles on a vacant construction site in Lithuania. The original plan had called for less, so the company adjusted the plan.
To save time, a large part of the 3,000 cubic meters of concrete to be used for the project was brought in the form of huge semi-finished bricks that were assembled like Lego pieces.
“We needed things that are ready,” Mr. Lüdicke said. “So we changed the whole planning process as we went along based on what was available.”
The jetty under construction for the floating terminal for liquefied natural gas in Wilhelmshaven. Mathias Lüdicke, right, the branch manager in Wilhelmshaven for Niedersachsen Ports GmbH.
Niedersachsen Havne put other projects on hold to focus on the job. Employees worked through the Easter weekend to get the necessary documents ready. “No one paid attention to overtime because we all said this has to work,” Mr. Lüdicke said.
The German bureaucracy also made adjustments. Parliament passed the LNG Acceleration Act, speeding up procedures for reviewing, approving and awarding contracts for LNG projects.
“If there is a chance in this really terrible situation, it is that we shake off all this sleepiness and in some cases grouchiness that exists in Germany,” Economy Minister Robert Habeck said in March about speeding up the construction of LNG – terminals.
Other major construction projects have moved slowly in Germany. In 2020, Berlin opened its new airport nine years late. Stuttgart’s new railway station, under construction since 2010, is now scheduled to open in 2025, after years of delays and ballooning costs.
The state of Lower Saxony issued some of the necessary permits for the LNG terminal on May 1, International Workers’ Day, a Sunday. “It’s not a day when you expect it to happen,” said Olaf Lies, the state’s economy minister. “We needed a new German speed.”
Similar projects elsewhere in Europe have faced opposition from activists opposed to building new fossil-fuel infrastructure and those who say such projects damage the local environment.
In Italy, a floating LNG terminal in the Tuscan port of Piombino is due to be commissioned next May. But several local groups have staged protests, claiming the project poses a risk to residents and the environment. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has said that anchoring the new vessel in Piombino is essential for Italy’s economy and for national security.
In Germany, the new pipeline would cross the path of an annual migration of frogs. To prevent the creatures from plunging into a ditch in which the pipe would be buried, Mr. Kissing’s Team Frog Fence. In some cases, experts had to create new caves for bats.
When they started digging, they discovered another problem. The soil in the region contains high concentrations of sulfuric acid, which under certain circumstances can become toxic if exposed to oxygen for too long.
In addition, the groundwater level was high. The trenches had to be dry to weld the pipes together.
To solve both problems, Mr. Kissing’s 800 workers in 400-foot increments, draining the trenches with pumps and then refilling them.
“You may hurry as much as you like, but earth is earth,” said Mr. Kissing while walking around the place on a recent rainy morning.
Pipeline project manager Franz-Josef Kissing, left. Mr. Kissing, right, inspects the connection being built between the pipeline and Germany’s gas grid.
The groundwater also contained more iron than the norm. So the company had to build special ironing facilities to filter the water before dumping it back into nearby fields.
The connection of the new pipeline to the German gas network presented another problem. It will be connected to an existing pipeline carrying gas from Norway, which has become crucial for Germany and cannot be shut down until the connection work can take place in the coming days. A bypass device had to be built to keep the gas flowing.
Before it could begin building the jetty, Niedersachsen Havne first had to search for unexploded ordnance from the Second World War. Wilhelmshaven, Germany’s only deep-water port, was heavily bombed during the war. The company scanned the seabed and removed some minor ammunition.
In September, with four months to go until the deadline, a problem appeared that threatened to make it impossible to finish on time. The Wilhelmshaven sea lock – a structure in the harbor used to raise and lower boats passing between stretches of water – had a mechanical failure, causing the harbor to close the passage. The piers for the jetty, which were being welded together on the docks, were stuck there.
Sir. Lüdicke met with officials from the Waterways Authority and the German Navy and devised a solution. The harbor would allow the ships carrying the pilings to pass through the lock with only one gate open, but only when the tide was such that the water level was equal.
“It was a very fine balancing act, a lot of coordination,” said Mr. Lüdicke. “If we hadn’t managed to do that, we wouldn’t have been able to launch the terminal this year.”
Open Grid Europe GmbH workers at the pipeline construction site, left. Skimming facilities, right, were built to filter the groundwater for disposal in nearby fields.
In September, explosions damaged the Nord Stream pipelines that run under the Baltic Sea a few hundred miles east of Wilhelmshaven in what European authorities have called an act of sabotage. It sparked concerns across Europe about the vulnerability of energy infrastructure. Local police deployed officers along the route of the new pipeline, and boats patrolled around the jetty.
Sir. Lüdicke is hoping for good weather as his team races towards the finish line. Bad weather can force delays and high winds routinely halt work. Work and tests still need to be carried out before the floating terminal, the 965ft Hoegh Esperanza, can dock in Wilhelmshaven in the coming days and the gas can start flowing.
Utility Uniper SE, which the German state recently agreed to nationalize and will operate the terminal, said that if all goes according to plan, the first LNG tanker will arrive early next year.
“If we have extreme weather it can cause problems and delay things,” said Mr. Lüdicke. “We’re so close.”
Margherita Stancati contributed to this article.